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Swimming Canada questioned in Ottawa safe-sport hearing about CEO's departure

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh Conservative MP Kevin Waugh - The Canadian Press

Swimming Canada was questioned Monday by a member of Parliament over its chief executive officer taking leave just over a year out from the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

The Canadian women's swim team's six medals accounted for over a quarter of the country's 22 medals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and another half-dozen in Tokyo in 2021 represented a quarter of 24.

Multi-medallists Penny Oleksiak, Maggie Mac Neil and Kylie Masse, as well as breakout star Summer McIntosh, are expected to lead Canada's swimmers in the pool in Paris.

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh pointed out in a Heritage committee's safe-sport hearing in Ottawa that Canada is an international powerhouse in swimming.

Waugh called last week's announcement of Ahmed El-Awadi's personal leave "a red flag."

Acting CEO Suzanne Paulins said El-Awadi took a personal health leave and that she was positioned to ensure continuity after her six years in Swimming Canada's leadership.

"Being with the organization and on the leadership team over the last several years, that was a conscious decision to protect and ensure that the continuity of the organization was maintained in these last 14, 16 months in preparation for the Olympics and Paralympics," Paulins said.

"All of our decisions are around protecting and engaging our athletes, our coaches, our staff in the next 16 months."

El-Awadi appeared before a Status of Women safe-sport committee Feb. 2.

He was questioned that day about his time as head of Water Polo Canada from 2005 to 2013.

Four former members the Canadian women's water polo team sued the organization last year and alleged a toxic culture fostered by executives and support staff. The allegations have not been tested in court.

Both the Heritage and Status of Women committees have held regular hearings in recent months to address what federal sports minister Pascale St-Onge has called a safe sport crisis.

Tearful athletes from multiple sports have testified for both committees about abuse and harassment, some of it sexual, by coaches and other team personnel, how those in power turned a blind eye to it, and their fear of repercussions if they complained.

Hockey Canada, Canada Soccer, Gymnastics Canada and Canadian Fencing Federation were among national sport organizations whose executives have been grilled by MPs about personnel and financial decisions and how they've handled misconduct in their organizations.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather asked Paulins what Swimming Canada had done about swimmer Mary-Sophie Harvey who said she was drugged on the final night of last year's world aquatics championship in Budapest, Hungary, where swimmers went to a club to celebrate the national team's performance.

The 22-year-old from Montreal said she'd suffered a concussion, a rib strain and bruising during a period of four to six hours of which she had no memory.

Swimming Canada turned Harvey's case over to its safe-sport officer.

"At this time, there's no further update I have with regards to an investigation," Paulins said Monday. "But just to say that one was completed, documents were filed, but there was no further outcome that came out, aside from what is publicly known."

The Heritage committee indicated its intention Monday to invite Harvey to speak to MPs.

NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo asked what Swimming Canada does to protect athletes travelling abroad.

Swimmers head next month to the world championship in Fukuoka, Japan, and to the world para championship in Manchester, England, as well as to October's Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile and November's world junior championship in Israel.

"We're constantly looking at and forward-looking to those sites and how we create procedures that will protect the swimmers in that environment," Paulins said.

Sexual abuse survivors Kelly Favro and Jessica Gaertner and safe sport advocate Rebecca Khoury were also among those who testified Monday for the Heritage Committee.

Kristen Worley, who in 2005 was the world's first athlete to be gender tested under an IOC policy, detailed her battle with international and domestic sports bodies to prove her human rights hade been violated.

Ontario's human rights tribunal ruled in favour of Worley in 2016.

Swimming Canada encompasses thousands of swimmers and hundreds of clubs.

Paulins acknowledged that Swimming Canada's safe-sport measures and the Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) established last year, focus on elite swimmers.

She says more needs to be done to help clubs in the safe-sport arena because they're run by volunteers.

"It is hard to reach down," Paulins said. "It is hard … to get all that information down to the club level. That is where a co-ordinated approach is going to be so important.

"There are different levels at play, and understanding and ensuring that the little club in Saskatoon, or wherever across the country, has the resources and understands where they can go to get the resources from the provincial level is really important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.